Anxiety in the classroom - warning, this is a long one.
We need to talk about anxiety.
In fact, I believe we have a social responsibility to do so.
Approximately 12% of Canadians (around 3 million) over 18 suffer from a form of anxiety. That's about the population of Toronto.
Yet we don't talk about it. We know the reasons why, including social stigma and cultural norms but knowing these causes doesn't make the issue go away. Of course the anxiety itself means we find ourselves unable to speak about our anxiety. Ah, the serpent eats it's own tail.
There are enough of us within the anxious "community" who are now speaking up. The environment in which we find ourselves able to speak is one in which people are willing to listen and really hear us, withholding judgement. We need encouragement and acceptance. Anxious people have a lot to offer, they are particularly creative thinkers who have a high amount of empathy (some would say too high) and often care deeply about social justice but let's be honest, what anxious people mostly get in the "normal" world is judgement. People with mental health struggles need accommodations, space and sometimes, assistance. This can be an inconvenience to others who don't experience anxiety.
It's the the expectation of this judgement and lack of acceptance which prevents people from opening up about their anxiety which in turn means we don't have enough people being open and honest about their mental health. So we think no one else has anxiety, that we are alone, we are ridiculous. We are in the way. Best not to talk about it.
I've mentioned the whole serpent/tail thing already, yes?
This whole subject lays heavily on my mind. Not only because I am an Anxiety Girl, and am also raising one, but because so many of my very creative and talented friends suffer from anxiety. So too, many of my daughter's friends are also suffering heavily due to their anxiety. This is what concerns me the most.
Having passed beyond the numerous trials and tribulations of school life as an anxious child, most adults find their way. Many are fortunate enough to stumble across their "people" at last after a lifetime of social isolation and find work (or creative work) which is satisfying enough that they can build a life and move forward. The scars of childhood laying at the back of their minds, though often triggered, are usually content to remain there unopened.
When you parent an anxious child and live with their efforts to cope with school life, every memory of your own struggle is suddenly glaringly clear again and you relive the experience whilst simultaneously trying to be supportive. It's very painful, stressful, exhausting.
You may have learned to ignore your anxious sensations and dull them down enough to get through the day and be deemed "normal" but when your progeny is suffering it is very hard to squash your feelings. You worry about your child, you experience those raw emotions of childhood again, the frailty. You worry constantly about how your child will fare later in the "real" world, and then worry that you are projecting your own remembered unhappiness onto them. Ugh.
This has been my experience, though we've been on this road long enough now and have done enough work in and out of therapy to have a reasonable grasp on how we best cope as a family; when to push beyond the comfort zone and when to settle into it.
Aside from being a budding Anxiety Girl, my daughter is designated by the education system as Gifted.
Gifted is not solely in reference to her IQ, thought Gifted kids are certainly very bright. They are also somehow deeper or broader thinkers, making connections where others may never see them or not until they are adults. Gifted children will usually flounder in the mainstream school system. We are lucky in Toronto to have a purpose-run program for our Gifted kids. Believe me, it has numerous faults, but it is a better option. I think. And then you worry about whether putting your child into the Gifted Program was the right decision. Your brain hurts.
Many Gifted children have a heightened sense of social justice and empathy. They think very deep and often dark thought and discuss things which would make a philosopher pay attention. It's tricky to parent them as their emotions are nowhere near as advanced as their thinking can often be.
This means that Giftedness and anxiety often go hand in hand.
For the most part the Program suits my kid and she has found some great friends which has helped her situation enormously. She is fortunate that her core teachers have been very open to listening about her anxiety issues and are interested in working towards supporting her. Considering that between the three of them they are responsible for approx 70 Gifted and definitely challenging (and awesome) kids, I am very grateful for their efforts. They don't always get it right but I believe they have our kids' best interests at heart.
A large part of the Gifted curriculum seems focused on presentations. This is, I imagine, because the Program is seeking to offer unusual minds a variety of formats in which to explain their ideas and analyse questions raised. It is not uncommon for a child Gifted in Math to be struggling in English, or vice versa, so making a presentation could offer a good alternative. I suppose.
I'm not convinced of this.
If Giftedness and anxiety are bosom buddies, stemming from a propensity for perfectionism, then isn't asking a Gifted child to present their ideas in front of the entire class regularly a setting them up to fail? The amount of presentations piling up by half way through Grade 7 led to us having to ask the teachers to come up with alternatives for our kid just so she could cope with the stress. I doubt very much she is the only child who has constant anxiety as they wait through each class to see if another presentation is scheduled, desperately relieved when one isn't. Grade 7/8 also coincides with a huge increase in schoolwork and homework expectations, and those hormones. Oh, the hormones. The horror of the changing body and the weirdness that kids feel. This is a time when kids want to shrink into absolute obscurity in general, though there are a number of these Gifted kids who I think feel exactly the opposite. They are the lucky few.
Earlier in the school year I discovered that all of the 7/8 kids will be doing a public speaking module at the end of the year for language. Each child, terrified or not, is expected to give a speech for three minutes in front of the others.
I have worked in retail for 20 years, run my own businesses, sold my own products in craft shows, organised craft shows, been on tv, taught students to craft and directed multiple theatrical productions. I still get nervous and by God I remember being twelve. I, too, was designated Gifted around that age. I was supremely uncomfortable in my own skin. I spent the majority of my energy navigating the emotional battlefield of the classroom, doing my best to dodge judgement bullets. I survived, I even did a drama program or two outside of school but I was never the confident, chatty public speaking child. The thought of it would have terrified me.
Yet this is the curriculum, there is no avoiding it. So I offered my services in the classroom to coach speech and drama in the lead up to these speeches. I sat in on the planning and decided to work with the kids for 8 weeks, 3 times a week for an hour. I wanted to work with them for a longer time, hoping to create an environment in which they would feel safe to take risks. My reasons for making such a commitment are firstly to support my own child and her nerves regarding this project, and secondly I expected many other kids would perhaps develop a little confidence through drama work. I have seen many kids blossom already, and there is a greater sense of community when we work together. Lastly, I am hoping to develop an actual curriculum of my own to pitch to schools in the coming years so this gives me an opportunity to try ideas out. Drama is so great for confidence, trust, empathy, and focus when taught by an experienced person. It hands you everything you need to be a confident adult, and is very liberating but you have to handle your students gently and have great patience.
My focus is on having a go, remembering that the person next to you is probably just as nervous as you (even if they don't show it) and that each effort adds up. I explain how they will use these skills in the future. They are genuinely awesome kids, and I'm grateful to be working with them.
I've told the kids of some of my own experience with nerves, discussed the current stats regarding fear of public speaking (oh yes, most adults studied in peer reviewed university studies would rather DIE than do public speaking) and remind them that they are enough and are safe. I ask them for empathy towards the quieter kids if they aren't feeling the nerves themselves. I can see them mulling it all over and slowly working towards a supportive outcome.
Then, there's this teacher. As a daughter of a teacher and a great admirer of teachers I find this criticism difficult, but necessary to write. From what I can tell this person who teaches all of these lovely, quirky kids one particular subject every single day doesn't understand the anxiety at play in the classroom. So these kids transition daily from an environment in which they are encouraged to find their voice and consider their own ideas and attempt to argue them, from a session with me in which I nudge them gently out of their comfort zones, into an environment which seems the polar opposite. These anxious kids who always seem "fine" (hiding it is their true Super Power) are no doubt imploding or exploding in their own ways in private.
Twice this week this teacher has lectured them regarding their nervousness about presenting. Twice they have been told there is really nothing to it, they shouldn't feel nervous and stress is something they have control over and can just ignore. They were told they are in Grades 7 and 8 now and should grow up and get on with it.
Do YOU want to stand up in front of 70 of your peers and give a speech? No? I didn't think so, yet these kids are expected to. They don't have the life experience, or the emotional experience to know how to do this, it's a skill which needs to be taught.
The leading thinker, and published author regarding children's anxiety, Dr. Stuart Shanker. works as a research professor at York University in Toronto. He has been studying childhood anxiety and mental health since forever and is often contacted by international communities to advise on how best to proceed in education. He runs programs for teachers and parents and kids, speaks at schools and community centres and his book is always next to my bed. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak a few years ago and it was life changing. Reading his book (and re-reading it) has changed the way I parent and also changed the expectations I place upon myself and other adults with anxiety.
Shanker explains that anxiety is reaching epidemic proportions in our schools. 1 in 5 children in Canada suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. By Grade 7/8 63% are feeling nervous and anxious all the time, and in High School the number is 72%.
He suggests the following efforts be made in the classroom:
• Teach kids about their brains
• Normalize anxiety and teach about its benefits
• Explore relaxation activities
• Encourage small steps toward a feared task
• Frame mistakes as a natural part of learning
Nowhere does he say tell the kids they shouldn't feel nervous, that they should just move forward and grow up. I will pursue a conversation with the aforementioned teacher in a search for common ground as it's particularly important to use another approach with Gifted kids who we know are more inclined towards anxiety. I can only try.
There is absolutely nothing worse for an anxious child to hear from a person in authority (teacher or parent) that their feelings are invalid and wrong. The damage to their self esteem is tangible and avoidable. We can and need to do better. Speaking about mental health issues as an adult around the dinner table or in the classroom is an opportunity for children to see it not just as normal but also manageable. If they see a loved one or respected figure expressing failure or discussing ways to cope with pressure they will have a role model. Just because our generation had few doesn't mean we can't offer up a better glimpse into the real adult world for our own kids. My daughter knows a great deal about my own experiences with anxiety, partly because they are still around and she witnesses my stress, but also because we discuss it. We break it down, self analyse and discuss on forward motion together. It binds us closer and I am positive it will help her through the coming years of High School and beyond (give me strength). She appreciates my honesty and it has made her respect me more, not less. Kids see everything anyway, they absorb us. Hiding our pain is pretty pointless really.
So, here I am at the end of a piece which I thought would be a few hundred words. Obviously I am frustrated yet there is also an opportunity here. Maybe I can create some drama work for teachers to give them a greater understanding of how anxiety is impacting their students today. I would love that. I've also written this piece which may be helpful to someone else out there in the internet world. I would absolutely love that.
Why else do I write?